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Capture the flag

In the newspapers a hundred years ago today were the exploits of young Londoner Ernest Norman Lawrie, who had gone out into no-man’s land to capture a German flag.

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Ernest Norman Lawrie was born in West Hampstead in April 1893 and grew up in Kew Gardens. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Lawrie; John was the manging director of Whiteley’s department store in Kensington. After being educated at Haberdasher’s School in Cricklewood, young Lawrie (who appears to have been known as Norman) started working at Elkington and Co plate silver makers of Regent Street in 1912.

Norman Lawrie was among the first wave of volunteers for war service after the Britain declared war in 1914. On August 10th, he joined the Kensington Battalion, the 13th Londons. Two and a half months later, he and his comrades went to the Western Front. Lawrie saw action at Neuve Chapelle in early 1915 and was commissioned as an officer in the battalion on 3 April 1915.

In a letter home he describes his efforts to win glory among the officers and men of the battalion soon after he was made an officer himself:

“The first time I went into the trenches as an officer I had rather an exciting experience.

“It had been a very dark night, and I kept on telling the sentries to keep a good lookout.

“In the morning we were surprised to see, midway between our lines and the German lines, a little German flag flapping in the wind. Underneath was a board with some writing on it, and all this stuck on to a post.

“It had been put there by some German patrol, who had the cheek to come thus far and stick it in the ground.

“Great excitement reigned all day, and our fellows potted at the post ‘like mad’ to knock it down, and the Boches potted at our fellows to do likewise, but neither side succeeded.

“During the evening I heard a group of about ten officers talking about it, and each saying he was going out when it was dark to bring it in.

“Well, to cut a long story short, I didn’t wait till it was dark but at dusk I strolled out, revolver in hand (loaded in all six chambers), with a corporal, in case I should get potted.

“After passing the word along our sentries, ‘Cease fire, patrol going out in front,’ the corporal and I started on our journey.

“We first of all had to climb over our own entanglements – that is one of the reasons why I went out before it was quite dark, as you get torn to pieces by the barbed wire in the dark; and reason number two, I wanted to get there before our other officers; and number three, because I didn’t want to meet a German patrol, which always comes out in front of their wire in the dark.

“Having safely climbed our wire, we crawled along and found to our dismay a ditch 5ft across and with 7ft of water in front of us.

“I had a pretty long journey. Well, we got there all right, and I gripped the post, when a sudden fear seized me.

“Here was I isolated between the two trenches, and suppose a wire was attached to the post from the trench and when I pulled it they would open a machine gun on me.

“Well, I felt carefully all over it, but ah! no wire. So I tore it out of the ground and – good heavens! A star shell went up and dropped within 5 ft of the corporal and I.

“You know what a white flare is like at a firework display, which shows up everybody all round. Well, both sides use these as rockets to show up the ground between the trenches at night, and this was one of them.

“Of course, the Boches spotted the flag was gone, and then spotted two black forms lying flat on the ground.

“My word, it was hot for a moment! The bullets fairly scraped us as they whizzed past. Well, we waited till the flare died down, and, picking up the flag, we ran to a hole in the ground made by a shell and dropped into this. And once more a star-light went up, but we were hidden this time.

“At last the star-lights stopped, and we hurried back to our trench, and huge cheers greeting me hugging the flag like a baby.”

 

The Daily Mirror described the incident as showing “better than anything the spirit of our men at the front” and revealing “once again the British soldier’s utter contempt for death”. Viewed another way, it was a reckless gamble with two men’s lives over a simple flag. Either way, it certainly shows how important such symbols as the flag were in the contest over no-man’s land.

From de Ruvigny's 'Roll of Honour'

From de Ruvigny’s ‘Roll of Honour’

Norman Lawrie was killed in action a few weeks later. I don’t know how he died, but his commander’s letter says that “He met his death leading his men in the true British way, and under circumstances as exacting as any that troops could be called upon to face”, so it doesn’t seem to have been in another wild venture out into no-man’s land.

Sources:

  • de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour
  • Daily Mirror 9/6/1915
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Posted by on 9 June 2015 in Events, War Dead

 

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The Roy brothers: fighting for King and Emperor

Millions of Indians served in the British Indian army in the centuries of British rule over the subcontinent. There were also a small number of Indian-born men in London during the Great War who joined the British forces and served alongside white British servicemen. Two of them were Paresh Lal Roy and his younger brother Indra Lal Roy, who became the first Indian fighter ace.

Lolita Roy and her six children were all born in Calcutta but lived in London from 1901. Her husband Piera Lal Roy was the director of public prosecutions in Calcutta. In 1911, Lolita and the children lived at 77 Brook Green, West London.  The eldest daughter, Leilavati, was 22 years old and married, Lolita’s other daughters were Miravati and Hiravati. The sons all appear to have been educated at St Paul’s School: Paresh Lal, Indra Lal and Lolit Kumar. By 1914, they had moved to 15 Glazeby Road before moving on again in October 1915 to 67 Fitz-George Avenue in Kensington.

Lolita Roy and her six children, listed in the 1911 census at their home at 77 Brook Green, N1

Lolita Roy and her six children, listed in the 1911 census at their home at 77 Brook Green, W

On 21 December 1914, Paresh Lal Roy enlisted in the reserve battalion of the upper-class Honourable Artillery Company, signing up for overseas service immediately. After a few months of training, he left for the front, arriving with the 1st battalion on 1 May 1915, joining 3rd Division. The unit subsequently served as Headquarters troops, as well as serving in the Royal Naval Division (63rd Division) from July 1916 to June 1917.  Other than a note that he was wounded in action on 24 May, but was not hospitalised, and that he was sick for a week in August 1917, there is little information in his service record about his war service in the HAC.

Indra Lal Roy

Indra Lal Roy

Meanwhile, Indra Lal Roy was serving in the school cadet force at St Paul’s.  In April 1917 he left school and joined the Royal Flying Corps. During the months he spent in training he was commissioned the British Army, as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. As we’ve seen in the cases of G.E.K. Bemand and Walter Tull, non-white men were not strictly allowed to become officers in the army. However, Roy was able to be commissioned; Flight magazine described him as

one of a band of young Indians studying here who, precluded until recently from any chance of obtaining commissions in the Army, found scope for striking a blow for the Empire in the new arm of our forces.

Roy was not the first of these young men who became flying officers. Hardutt Singh Malik, a student at Oxford at the outbreak of war, campaigned to be commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps. Eventually he was given an honorary commission in April 1917 and went to the front in June. Malik served in 62 and 28 Squadron and was credited with two victories.

Following his training and commission, Indra Lal Roy joined the elite 56 Squadron. He was not particularly successful as one of their SE5a pilots, though, and after being injured a crash in that winter he was sent home (accounts vary about whether this was November or December or even early 1918). He had further training back in the UK before being sent back out to the front and joining 40 Squadron (now part of the Royal Air Force) in June 1918, this time as a temporary Lieutenant.

An SE5a fighter

An SE5a fighter

This time, he was extremely successful. During two weeks from 6 to 19 July 1918, he shot down ten enemy aircraft in just over 170 hours of flying. Flying SE5a  number B180, he shot down three German aircraft on 8 July and two each on the 13th and 15th. This was an incredible run of success, perhaps unique. Indra Lal Roy became the first Indian fighter ace.

On 22 July, though Roy successful streak came to an end and he was shot down during a dogfight with Fokker DVIIs from Jasta 29.  He did not return from his mission, but his fate was unknown. It was not until 18 September that it was officially assumed that he had been killed in action.  In the end his body was found, identified and buried in Estevelles Communal Cemetery in France.

Just three days after he was officially declared dead, Roy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill in those weeks in July:

A very gallant and determined officer, who in thirteen days accounted for nine enemy machines. In these several engagements he has displayed remarkable skill and daring, on more than one occasion accounting for two machines in one patrol.

At the same time, Paresh Lal Roy was seeking to follow his younger brother’s lead and join the Royal Air Force. At the end of September, he was transferred home from the HAC to become a cadet in the RAF. He had not qualified by the end of the war and was discharged in early 1919.

Lt. Indra Lal Roy DFC and Pte Paresh Lal Roy were Indian-born British subjects, living in London. Like many of their contemporaries who remained in India, they joined up to fight in the war and they both served on the Western Front.  Indra was an exceptional example, both for getting a commission in the RFC and RAF and for the skill he displayed that earned him a gallantry medal. Paresh served in the army from 1914 to 1918 and survived the war; he appears to have returned to India and become a prominent amateur boxer (as well as a traffic superintendent).

Sources:

Census records 1901 and 1911

P.L. Roy’s service record

Wikipedia entry on P.L. Roy

National Archives page on I.L. Roy including his service record

The Aerodrome page on I.L. Roy

Dictionary of National Biography entry on I.L. Roy

Flight magazine obituary of I.L Roy

 
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Posted by on 9 October 2013 in Award-winners

 

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The Christmas truce

The iconic image of Christmas in the Great War is the 1914 Christmas truce.  Londoner Cyril Drummond took part in this historic truce on the Western Front while serving as a Royal Artillery officer and took this amazing photo of men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment fraternising with soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment:

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man's Land - (c) IWM

Men of Warwickshire and Saxony meet in No-Man’s Land, photo by C.A.F. Drummond – (c) IWM

The Warwickshires were not the only ones, of course. The excellent Long, Long Trail page about the truce lists battalions from six British and Indian Divisions that took part, units that included the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Londons), the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (1/16th Londons) and Kensingtons (the 1/13th Londons, whom we’ve met in Eric Kennington’s wonderful war art). Rather than try to tell the story, which other websites already do well, here are a few accounts from those London units:

Eighteen-year-old William Henry Francis Ollis of the Queen’s Westminsters wrote to his family in Croydon about the truce (the letter was published in the local paper and reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

What an extraordinary effect Christmas has on the world. Peace and goodwill amongst men during peace time one can quite understand but peace and goodwill amongst men who have been murdering one another for the past five months is incredible and if I had not seen for myself the effects of Christmas on these two lines of trenches I should never have believed them. All day yesterday the German snipers were busy and unfortunately to some effect…(censored)..progressing well. That is by the way. The point is that when darkness fell all firing ceased. The Germans sang and shouted and cheered, and we sang and cheered. We called Merry Christmas across to one another. The German lines were lit up with huge flares and we could see each other plainly. A few hours before we were jolly careful to keep our heads below the parapet and now we were sitting on it, throwing cigarettes and tobacco to our enemies who wandered out into the middle of the lines. In some places we are only about 100 yards from them and we kept up conversation all night. By the way they offered to play us at football. I shall be able to tell you heaps more about the wonderful change that has come over with the dawn of Christmas when I get back. Today not a shot has been fired and the frost is still thick on the ground. Quite a welcome change after the wet. We are quite happy and hope you are the same. Your ever-loving ‘Terrier’ Billy.

Corporal Leon Harris, who had come to London before the war to work in Selfridge’s, wrote home to his parents in Exeter of the experience he and his comrades in the Kensingtons had, beginning on Christmas Eve (also published in the local press and  reproduced on the excellent Christmas Truce website):

This has been, the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.

The account of a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade is reproduced in a Guardian article on the subject:

First of all I must describe in detail what will, I believe, live in history as one of the most remarkable incidents of the war.

On Christmas Eve at about 4pm, we were in a line of advance trenches waiting to be relieved, directly it was dark, when we heard singing and shouting coming from the other trenches at right angles to us which line a hedge of the same field. Then the news filtered down. German and English officers had exchanged compliments and agreed on a truce, and then started giving one another a concert. We all sang every song we could think of, a bonfire was lit and everyone walked about as though it were a picnic. After we were relieved and got back to the breastworks (about 200yds?) behind the firing-lines, we could hear the German band playing Old Folks at Home, God Save the King and Onward, Christian Soldiers.

On Christmas Day, men and officers went in between, and even entered each other’s trenches and exchanged smokes and souvenirs. I am sorry we were relieved; it must have been a marvellous sight. All I could manage was a German cigarette given me by one of our platoon who accompanied our platoon officers to the line. One regiment, I hear, tried to arrange a football match for this afternoon, but I don’t think that came off. We are opposed to Saxon regiments and the whole affair is most striking, when you consider that a week ago today there were some hundreds of casualties through the attack and the dead still lie between the trenches.

By this truce we were able to get the bodies and the Germans were good enough to bring our dead out of some ruined houses by their trenches, so that we could give them burial here. I personally shall be very pleased when we go up tomorrow night, not to have that sight before us again.

One of Coulson’s comrades, David H W Smith, collected and kept the signature of one of the Saxon soldiers he met during the truce, Arthur Bock of Leipzig.

The truce was a refreshing change for those in the front line. But it did not last long and it was not repeated the next year, as the war ground on. For a few days at the end of 1914, though, some of the men on the front line broke the rules and met with their enemies as humans, many of them as Christians, all of them far from their families. A truly remarkable event.

 
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Posted by on 24 December 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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